Accueil » 56-4 ( 2001) » Partenariat et participation syndicale à la gestion : le cas de Tembec

Partenariat et participation syndicale à la gestion : le cas de Tembec

Paul-André Lapointe


Le partenariat n’est susceptible de s’accompagner de la démocratie au travail et d’un renforcement du syndicalisme qu’à certaines conditions et dans certaines circonstances. À défaut de les réunir, se met plutôt en place un processus d’affaiblissement du syndicat local, dans le cadre de dispositifs participatifs sans pouvoir. C’est la principale conclusion qui se dégage de l’étude de Tembec, la plus vieille expérience de partenariat au Québec. En l’absence d’un programme distinctif de celui de la direction, dépourvu de ressources externes et internes et doté d’une démocratie déficiente, le syndicat local s’affaiblit dans le cadre de sa participation à la gestion.


Partnership and Union Participation in Management: The Case of Tembec

It is only under certain conditions and circumstances that partnership is likely to be accompanied by democracy and a strengthened unionism. Failure to meet these conditions results in participation without power that leads to a weakened local union. This is the main conclusion derived from the study of the longest-standing experience of partnership in Québec.

Located in the small town of Témiscaming, Tembec was created in 1973 as a result of the financial participation of workers and managers who bought the plant that was closed down one year earlier by its former owner, Canadian International Paper (CIP). From the outset, the plant was characterized by participative management, the main features of which are still maintained today: worker representation on the board of directors, existence of a large number of joint committees whose composition and mandate are stipulated in the collective agreement, management commitment to the employment security of workers (whose number has risen from 400 when the plant was re-opened to more than 700 today) and, lastly, great flexibility within the organization. However, the union’s evolution over the years has been rather worrying. The union has few internal resources (only the union president is freed up on a full-time basis), is isolated from the rest of the labour movement, and is less and less involved in issues related to working conditions and work organization in the plant. It is therefore moving away from its rank and file members and drawing closer to management, which has become its main source of legitimacy. These conclusions are based on the results of a field survey conducted between 1993 and 2000. The results come from several sources: in-depth interviews with the principal management representatives, union representatives and ten workers; a one-week observation period in the plant; and a review of the relevant documents.

The article is divided into six parts. Part 1 stresses the limitations of strategic choice theory in industrial relations. By lending too much importance to management strategies, this theory only takes unions into consideration insofar as they represent one of the favourable conditions of or obstacles to the completion of management’s modernization projects. Too concerned with the adjustment to environmental constraints and achievement of economic performance that is mutually beneficial for employees and employers, it ignores a major issue, namely democracy at work. Highly functionalist and normative as well as overly focused on the description of “best practices,” it ignores the tensions and conflicts at the centre of workplaces that explain the dynamics of change. These latter aspects, which are deliberately ignored by strategic choice theory, form the central subject of this article.

Part 2 presents the Tembec case and highlights the principal aspects that make Tembec exceptional in terms of its management style: co-partnership, union representation on the board of directors, profit sharing with employees, non-payment of dividends to shareholders, great importance given to employment protection, and joint management. Both the survey methodology and the analytical framework are set out.

Part 3 reviews the conditions in which partnership emerged and describes its original form. The compromise on employment in order to re-open the plant proved to be essential for understanding the experience. Partnership opened up a space for participation that the local union was unable to fully occupy, thus leading to a weakened unionism. This is analyzed in Part 4. Without sufficient external and internal resources and characterized by a weak democracy, the union was unable to develop a distinctive agenda and therefore adopted a passive position of support towards management.

Part 5 describes participation at the end of a 25-year evolution. Whether it is representative or direct, whether it takes place within the board of directors, various joint committees or work groups, participation is characterized by a lack of power for workers and the union. Instead, its goal is to ensure better information communication and increased co-operation. Rather than influencing management decisions, it contributes to modifying union strategies and positions as well as bringing them into line with those of management, thus increasingly weakening the local union. This situation provokes many tensions within the union and dissatisfaction among the workers.

These tensions and dissatisfaction, which are analyzed in Part 6, are caused by the way complaints are handled, which is marred by a strong suspicion of bias. They also concern the introduction of flexible remuneration to protect employment, in particular a wage disparity clause that has a detrimental effect on new workers, in a context where the gap between the composition of the union executive and that of the workforce is growing. Dominated by the older workers who lived through the syndrome of plant closure, the union executive is no longer representative of a younger workforce, most of whom did not experience this trauma. The union’s legitimacy is challenged at the end of a particularly co-opting process, which means that the majority of union leaders are pursuing their career in management. Despite everything that has made it fragile, the Tembec model nevertheless maintains a certain degree of stability due to the existence of a counterbalance: the plant-closure syndrome, employment security, wage catch-up with other plants, certain management practices that foster a strong sense of belonging, the importance of opportunities for promotion, a charismatic management, and the omnipresence of relatives in the plant and the village.

This case study aptly demonstrates the main limitations of strategic choice theory. At first glance, on the basis of a few interviews with one or two union and management representatives, this case may appear to have all the characteristics of an ideal model of partnership. However, the results of this study show that partnership can be reconciled with participation without democracy, a weakened unionism, and a continued hierarchical work organization. They also demonstrate that co-operation and trust do not by themselves bring about democracy at work. On the contrary, co-operation and trust can very well be reconciled with a benevolent paternalism combined with a unionism that is more or less dominated by management.


Cooperación-asociación y participación sindical a la gestión : el caso de Tembec

La cooperación-asociación patronal-sindical puede estar acompañada de democracia en el trabajo y de un fortalecimiento del sindicalismo solo en ciertas condiciones y ciertas circunstancias. En vez de esta conjunción, se implanta un proceso de debilitamiento del sindicato local, en el marco de dispositivos participativos sin poder. Esta es la principal conclusión que se desprende del estudio de Tembec, la experiencia más antigua de cooperación-asociación en Quebec. En ausencia de un programa distinto del programa de la dirección de la empresa, desprovisto de recursios externos e internos y caracterizado por una democracia deficiente, el sindicato local se debilita en el marco de su participación a la gestión.